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Press releases Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Mosul: Protection of civilians paramount as ISIL intensifies use of human shields

Human shields in Mosul

28 March 2017

GENEVA (28 March 2017) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Tuesday deplored the massive loss of civilian lives in west Mosul in recent days, victims of actions by ISIL and of airstrikes. 

Bodies continue to be found in buildings where civilians were reportedly held by ISIL as human shields, and were subsequently killed by airstrikes conducted by Iraqi Security Forces and International Coalition forces, as well as by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) allegedly planted in the same buildings by ISIL. Numerous other civilians have been killed by shelling and have been gunned down by ISIL snipers as they tried to flee.

Zeid welcomed the announcement by Iraqi Security Forces and the International Coalition that they are conducting investigations into some of the most serious incidents resulting in loss of civilian lives, and stressed that “the investigations into all such incidents must be thorough and transparent, to establish the facts and the number of civilian casualties in each case, and the findings must be made public.”

The UN Human Rights Chief also called on them “to undertake an urgent review of tactics to ensure that the impact on civilians is reduced to an absolute minimum, in full accordance with international humanitarian law.” He urged the Iraqi Government and its partners to ensure the rights of surviving victims are respected and that they receive appropriate reparations and other medical and psycho social support as required.

According to information verified by the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, at least 307 people were killed and another 273 wounded between 17 February and 22 March. The most deadly incident occurred on 17 March, when an airstrike -- reportedly targeting ISIL snipers and equipment -- hit a house in al-Jadida neighbourhood in western Mosul city. Witnesses reported that ISIL had previously forced at least 140 civilians into the house to be used as human shields. They also said that ISIL had booby-trapped the house with IEDs. So far, official figures indicate at least 61 people were killed in this single incident, but the actual figure may be much higher.

In another serious incident, on 22 March, an airstrike hit a residential building in Rajm Hadid neighbourhood in western Mosul city. ISIL reportedly filled the house with people from the surrounding neighbourhood, including children, and then used the house to launch rocket-propelled grenades against the Iraqi Security Forces. The airstrike killed a seven-year-old girl and trapped eight other children under the rubble, seven of whom were later found and taken to hospital.

In addition, between 23 and 26 March, reports were received that at least 95 civilians were killed in Risalah, Nabils, Uruba and Sainaah al-Qadimah neighbourhoods in western Mosul city as a result of shelling, vehicle-based and other explosive devices planted by ISIL, as well as by ISIL snipers.

There are also reports that ISIL has forcibly transferred civilians within western Mosul. On 20 March, ISIL militants allegedly forced 38 families to leave their homes in the Bab al-Beth neighbourhood, as Government forces began operations in the area, and moved them to a west Mosul neighbourhood known as 17 Tamouze, using them to shield their fighters as they relocated, as well as in strategic locations. ISIL has also reportedly forced families to stay in some 15 houses on the frontlines in the Nablis and Risala neighbourhoods and are using those houses to launch attacks on Government forces. There have been numerous reports that ISIL snipers have shot at, and in some cases killed or wounded, civilians attempting to flee towards the Iraqi Security Forces, and that ISIS has also shelled civilians in areas of the city retaken by Government forces.

“ISIL’s strategy of using children, men and women to shield themselves from attack is cowardly and disgraceful. It breaches the most basic standards of human dignity and morality. Under international humanitarian law, the use of human shields amounts to a war crime,” High Commissioner Zeid said. “And shooting civilians in the back as they flee for their lives is an act of monstrous depravity.”

Zeid stressed that the conduct of military operations in densely populated areas continues to pose a significant and serious risk to civilians who remain in those areas. “The conduct of airstrikes on ISIL locations in such an environment, particularly given the clear indications that ISIL is using large numbers of civilians as human shields at such locations, may potentially have a lethal and disproportionate impact on civilians,” he said.

“I do not underestimate the enormity of the challenges facing the Iraqi Security Forces and their Coalition partners as they try to dislodge ISIL from their last strongholds in Mosul, and the immense difficulties they face in trying to save civilians from their nightmare existence under ISIL control,” Zeid said. “This is an enemy that ruthlessly exploits civilians to serve its own ends, and clearly has not even the faintest qualm about deliberately placing them in danger. It is vital that the Iraqi Security Forces and their Coalition partners avoid this trap, review how their procedures comply with their obligations under the international humanitarian law principle of precautions, and consider all tactical options available with a view to avoiding civilian loss of life and, in any event, reducing the impact of operations on the civilian population to an absolute minimum.”


For more information and media requests, please contact: Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / [email protected]) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 / [email protected]) or Liz Throssell (+41 22 917 9466 / [email protected])

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